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The Future for Carlos Danger: When Do Political Scandals Go Too Far?

• August 09, 2013 • 8:00 AM

An anti-Grover Cleveland political cartoon of 1884. (ILLUSTRATION: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

His place in the polls continues to drop, but is there hope yet for Anthony Weiner? Research indicates that many politicians tainted by scandal get elected anyway.

When The Dirty revealed at the end of July that Anthony Weiner, the erstwhile New York Congressman and the leading Democratic candidate for mayor of New York City was, after resigning from Congress in 2011 due to his sexting addiction and promising to “never, ever” do that again, still sending sexy text messages under the name Carlos Danger, many wondered if his rise to power had finally hit its ceiling. While Weiner continues in the race, his polls have sunk dramatically. Some former aides indicate that prominent supporters are even urging him to drop out.

But maybe it’s not just this race that Weiner should drop out of. Maybe he should abandon public life altogether, some have suggested. Matt Taylor writes at Vice that “it’s nice that Weiner’s apparently on his way out for good” because “dick pics aside, the wannabe NYC mayor is a pandering scumbag.”

While Weiner’s certainly a lot less popular now than he was pre-Danger, we all know that politicians can come back despite scandals. “Well, time heals all wounds,” quips Alasdair Denvil at PolicyMic. Ted Kennedy, Mark Sanford, and John McCain have demonstrated that scandals, even very serious ones, don’t prevent people from getting re-elected over and over again.

But how simple is it, really, to stage a comeback? While many once-embarrassed politicians have run again successfully, let’s not forget all of the Gary Harts out there, with big scandals dooming them forever to the political exile of lobbying and “spending more time with family.” What’s the bounce-back rate on politicians involved in big scandals?

Naturally, it appears to depend a lot on the scandal itself, but it’s actually pretty high. According to research by Scott Basinger of the University of Houston:

Since Watergate, more than two hundred fifty members of the House of Representatives have been involved in various scandals. The author finds that roughly 40 percent of incumbents did not “survive” their scandal. Incumbents who stood for reelection lost 5 percent of the general election vote share, on average, but the electoral repercussions vary across types of scandals and could be magnified in the presence of a quality challenger. A scandal-tainted incumbent defending his or her seat does not necessarily fare better than an untainted open-seat candidate.

That’s right, 60 percent do survive their scandals. Why does this happen? Do Americans just have really short attention spans?

Research by Brendan Nyhan (PDF), assistant professor of government at Dartmouth, indicates that the context of the scandal matters a lot, perhaps more than the actual nature of the revelation itself:

Scholars typically interpret scandals as resulting from the disclosure of official misbehavior, but the likelihood and intensity of media scandals is also influenced by the political and news context. … Two independent factors … should increase the president’s vulnerability to scandal: low approval among opposition party identifiers and a lack of congestion in the news agenda. … I find strong support for both claims. First, I estimate duration models demonstrating that media scandals are more likely when approval is low among opposition identifiers. Using exogenous news events as an instrumental variable to overcome the endogeneity of news congestion, I then show how competing stories can crowd out scandal coverage. These results suggest that contextual factors shape the occurrence of political events and how such events are interpreted.

Context matters. What’s more, political scandals, if properly managed, have a way of humanizing politicians. If many of them seem like arrogant phonies (if reasonably competent ones) before their scandal, they can seem humble and realistic after.

Paul Rosenberg writes that scandal impacts are also different depending on morality expectations and political party. As he—and it’s important to note this is an editorial argument; Rosenberg hasn’t proven this empirically—explains:

Liberals generally understand scandal in terms of logos as a breaking of the rules, once hidden, brought into the light. It is very much about the facts of the case, an empirical investigative process. Conservatives generally understand scandal in terms of mythos, as unmasking a violation of the sacred order of things—the sacred order being that conservatives and those they favor are on top, and everyone else is beneath them. In this view, the very existence of liberalism is scandalous, because liberalism posits a fundamental equality of people, rather than an immutable hierarchy. For conservatives, scandal is a spectacle, a morality play, whose facts are largely determined by how well they resonate with pre-established meanings.

The conservatives may be on to something. It appears that a big part of what can turn a scandal into a significant long-term problem is not so much the facts of the case but, rather, how the facts fit into our understanding of the political figure.

Witness the case of Eliot Spitzer, the former governor of New York. While serving as New York State’s attorney general he was famous for a ruthless attitude toward white-collar crime and perusing criminal persecutions for things like securities fraud. And then in 2008 the New York Times reported that Spitzer had been a client of an expensive prostitution service called Emperors Club VIP. Authorities investigating the case discovered that Spitzer may have spent as much as $80,000 for sex over several years. And so he resigned from office in 2008.

But then, after a short time out of the public eye, he emerged as a regular columnist at Slate. He began hosting his own TV program, Viewpoint With Eliot Spitzer. With no more need to prove how “tough” he was on crime, after so publicly having committed one, he settled into a role as elder statesman (though he’s only 54) taking responsible, reasonable positions on policy—“If the filibuster and the Hastert rule are not overcome, the 113th Congress will begin very quickly to look like the 112th”—and suggesting “two canny strategies for eliminating stupid debt-ceiling votes.” Now he’s running for comptroller of New York City, an unglamorous job focused on “auditing the performance and finances of city agencies,” but one widely seen as the path to better, loftier political offices.

As the line goes, the only thing that will kill you in politics is a live boy or a dead girl. But Ted Kennedy even had a dead girl and, while that probably kept him from the Oval Office, he was still re-elected to the U.S. Senate, eventually becoming a major figure in its liberal coalition. Mark Foley, there may be hope for you yet!

The Chappaquiddick Bridge, 1969. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

The Chappaquiddick Bridge, 1969. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Louisiana Congressman Bill Jefferson served nine terms in Congress before being indicted for corruption. He was apparently in the habit of using his official status to help corrupt business associates obtain lucrative contracts. They’d pay huge sums of money, and Jefferson would employ his title to win the deals. Jefferson was defeated in his 2008 re-election campaign, filed for bankruptcy, and was sentenced to eight years in prison. He is now serving time in at a federal facility in Beaumont, Texas. But who knows what happens next? Jefferson didn’t make his career out of denouncing others for greed, so it’s entirely possible he might come back to public life once he gets out of the lock-up. It’s not likely, but it is a possibility.

When Bill Clinton was caught in an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky back in 1998, his popularity only seemed to rise, despite (or perhaps due to) his impeachment by Congress. Sure, everyone knew Clinton cheated on his wife, but he didn’t base his public career on family values and being faithful. It’s embarrassing and sordid, but not hypocritical.

Likewise, when in 1884 political opponents spread rumors that presidential candidate Grover Cleveland, a 47-year-old bachelor, had fathered an illegitimate child years before when he was working as a lawyer in Buffalo, it didn’t doom him to political failure (a cartoon about Cleveland’s mystery lovechild is shown above). Cleveland simply admitted that, yes, he could be the father of the child, who was named after his law partner and who he had been financially supporting. But that had been years before and did nothing to undermine the honesty and efficiency in government campaign he was running.

Cleveland was elected president. He then married the 22-year-old daughter of that law partner, who had been his ward for many years (which is perhaps stranger than the scandal, but it was a different time) and no one ever seemed to worry about the illegitimate child ever again.

Most everyone assumes most politicians are liars; it’s the politicians caught up in scandals that go against their public positions that have a much more serious problem.

Robert Bauman had a more difficult time than either Clinton or Cleveland. A Maryland congressman with a reputation as a fierce conservative who founded conservative activist groups like the Young Americans for Freedom and the American Conservative Union, Bauman was famous for often complaining about the perilous state of morality in America. And then in 1980, while running for re-election, authorities charged Bauman with attempting to solicit sex from a 16-year-old male prostitute. He was not re-elected. He tried to run again in 1982 but dropped out before the primary.

“Americans are just not interested in what’s going on in someone’s bedroom,” Hustler’s Larry Flynt, who really ought to know, told NBC News. “But what’s very much alive is if the affair is associated with hypocrisy or corruption.”

So will Weiner join the 60 percent? Maybe. While having an affair or issuing no-bid contracts to friends can be written off by some as one mistake due to bad judgment or unusual circumstances—the sort that we all make and understand—persistently sending text messages about your sexual needs (“little?! ouch. you’d be surprised how big”) using a name likely based on a satirical Chuck Norris biography indicates some pretty compulsive behavior.

Perhaps the bigger problem with Weiner is that, while his scandal is actually relatively minor (seriously, sexting?) the fact that he keeps doing this is a little … strange. The problem is not that he’s likely to sext again. The problem is that he seems to have some intense and overwhelming need to do it. That makes the public think that he’s just not a person with much self-control. But you never know. It turns out there’s a whole lot you can do that the voters will forgive you for. Eventually.

Daniel Luzer
Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_Luzer.

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